More than anyone else in franchise history, Mikko Koivu is the Minnesota Wild.
It’s not just the fact that he’s the longest-tenured member of the franchise, sticking with the team through Division titles and last-place finishes. It’s not just that he’s the first and only full-time captain of the squad. It’s not just because he’s the franchise leader in games played and points.
It’s that Koivu’s identity and the Wild’s are inextricable. Both are known for a relentless, workmanlike, un-flashy two-way game. It’s not exciting. No one’s going to get out of their seats watching Koivu backcheck, or start a breakout from within his own zone. But year after year, Koivu delivers results, combining truly elite defensive play with the kind of scoring one should expect from a top-6 caliber center.
When you combine his legacy with the franchise and his contributions to the Wild’s recent successes, it made perfect sense that Minnesota would extend him. Today, Koivu inked a two-year extension, avoiding a possible entry into unrestricted free agency this summer. The deal will be worth $11 million, and keep him in the fold until he turns 37.
It may come as a surprise to some that events unfolded in this way. There are many who have held the view that Koivu has been on the brink of decline for a while, citing age, injury history, and lack of foot speed. And true, those things certainly can be red flags for a steep decline.
But many of those concerns washed away last season. Settling into a hyper-defensive role behind Eric Staal, Koivu flourished. His work centering Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker was key to the Wild’s success, allowing the two speedy wingers to run amok. He also posted 18 goals and 58 points- his highest totals since the 2010-11 season. For the first time in his career, he became a finalist for the Selke Trophy, being recognized as one of the best defensive forwards in the game.
For the first time in a long time, it was fashionable to appreciate Koivu. The Captain’s current contract (7 years, $47.25 million) heaped unfair expectations upon him. He routinely endured criticism for his captaincy, his salary cap hit, his inability to be an impact offensive player befitting his role as Minnesota’s de facto first-line center.
But seeing that Koivu could succeed in the proper role- one where he wasn’t expected to do the heavy offensive lifting- changed that perception.
Which is good, because Koivu has been owed recognition for what he brings to the table for years now. Since signing his 7-year contract in the summer of 2011, Koivu has 297 points in 410 games- that’s an average of 59 points per 82 games. He’s been able to put up those numbers alongside players like Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund. He’s been able to put up those numbers alongside Antti Miettinen and Dany Heatley’s corpse. It almost doesn’t matter.
He’s also been an insanely great possession driver throughout his tenure with the Wild. Thanks to his ability to almost eradicate his opponents’ scoring chances, Minnesota tends to have a massive advantage in Corsi (shot attempts) with Koivu on the ice. That he finished above 50% in Corsi with some of the toughest minutes in the league last season is a testament to his defensive skill.
Koivu may not be able to make that kind of impact over the next three seasons, but even if he takes a step back, he should be a competent defensive center. That’s still a player who is useful at the NHL level.
Especially to the Wild. Minnesota has never been blessed with an abundance of depth at center, and a Koivu departure could have left them vulnerable in the next few years. Eric Staal’s contract expires in 2019. While Joel Eriksson Ek is a good bet to stick at center, that’s not a guarantee with the Wild’s other center prospect, Luke Kunin. And beyond Eriksson Ek and Kunin, there’s no one in the organization that is expected to develop into a top-6 caliber center.
So locking in Koivu for the next three years gives Minnesota peace of mind at a position of organizational weakness. Fixing Koivu’s price for the next two seasons now gives the team a clearer understanding of how to proceed at the trade deadline and beyond. And it ensures that their franchise player and captain will stay in the organization until the ripe old age of 37.
It made too much sense not to happen. Let’s be glad it did.